“The Last Berliner” is such a brilliant breath of air, a seemingly uncomplicated siege thriller that offers layers of plot and characterization, a dazzling display. Sebastian Achilles is brilliant as Tobias, an electrician coping with his father, about to be evicted because of slumlord reclamation and redevelopment. What begins as a classic thriller buildup deepens immeasurably with the injection into the siege scene of a policewoman and a sleazy developer (great acting performances here), and the buildup of negotiations is wonderfully conveyed. And then a bravura climactic scene blows the viewer away! Unpretentious, but very intelligent, The Last Berliner is a minor triumph that deserves wider recognition.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was by Bright Eyes [9/10]
“Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” is the tenth album, and the first in nine years, of Bright Eyes, the flagship band of genius songwriter Conor Oberst. Anything Oberst puts out is wondrous but Bright Eyes teams him up with a solid group of musicians and songwriters, and Oberst’s Bright Eyes presents him at his most expansive and ornate. Take the stripped-down tremulous outpourings of a bard and add Queen-spirit adventurousness of arrangements and weirdness … well, it’s a triumph. Oberst’s vision and yearnings have not abated a whit, and every one of this capacious album’s fourteen tracks sparkles with inventiveness, talent, and invention. Lyrically, as ever, Oberst marries personal concerns, in this case a break-up and a family death, to the vast and apocalyptical. Every song, even those that flirt with harshness or weirdness, contains a kernel of indie melody. I find it hard to pluck out highlights from this cohesive album, in the old vernacular, but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck when, during the swoony “One and Done,” which seems to be about wedding memories, Oberst keens: “Around here we’ve been wondering what tomorrow’s going to sing / On the final field recording from the loud Anthropocene.” Folks, if you wish to see non-mainstream music, sadly still much overlooked, at its most profound, snap up Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
Our Two Skins by Gordi [6/10]
Australian folk/pop/rock/whatever artist, Sophie Payten, AKA Gordi, unleashes emotionally on “Our Two Skins,” her second. Standout track “Aeroplane bathroom” is as spare and airy as can be, while “Unready” and “Sandwiches” rattle with pop-rock rhythms out of Sinead O’Connor’s playbook, but those three tracks and the other eight sink deep inside the listener with emotional heft. Beautifully produced by Zach Hanson and Chris Messina, using space and echoes that feature Payten’s swaying ethereal voice, the album roams over joy and anxiety and meaning. The closing minute of “Volcanic,” a tinkling, accelerating piano figure overlain by an urgent chorus, is another highlight. Lovely music, real lyrics, what more could one yearn for?
The Apocalypse Factory by Steve Olson [8/10]
The tale of Hanford’s success with plutonium manufacture over the decades for the Nagasaki nuke and then onwards for a generation of atomic and hydrogen bombs, “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age” is a retelling, but a fresh and vital one. So many of the Manhattan Project and Cold War accounts are too complex, too technical, or too biased. Steve Olson, who hails from the east of Washington State, where the vast plutonium factory sprang up, offers an everyperson account that manages to be both accurate and accessible, both sympathetic (often awestruck) and sad. His unique, and most apt, take on the nuclear weapons enterprise is through the chemistry of plutonium: its discovery, mastery, and production. Olson is a cogent, entertaining writer, and he maintains a steady narrative pace. The Apocalypse Factory celebrates and bemoans a chapter of human achievement, and it comes highly recommended.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley [5/10]
Built around a solid thriller idea, and unfurled with tremendous energy, “The Guest List” offers a quick read with little ongoing punch. When guests assemble for a bang-up wedding on a storm-struck remote island off the Irish coast, secrets boil over the top and murder eventuates. Told with great panache by Lucy Foley, a writer with promise, the action is related from numerous points of view, and it’s soon clear that barely a single soul is not keeping secrets. The different characters are well delineated, though with surprisingly little depth, the plot is paced out well, and “The Guest List” can be recommended as an engaging one-sitting read. All that said, the whodunnit outcome springs out as a fizzer and the entire exercise is suffused with a James-Patterson-like sheen.
“Staged,” a six-part season of brief episodes about actors in lockdown, could only have been conceived in lockdown (by Phil Glynn and Simon Evans, who also writes and directs) and only with superb improvisers like Martin Sheen and David Tennant. That Tennant and Sheen are themselves friends helps, for the pair riff off each other about mock competitiveness and insecurities. The storyline is gossamer thin: a budding producer/director tries to get the two stars to rehearse an old Italian play during lockdown, and various other stars (Samuel Jackson, Judy Dench) butt in. Cleverly, the scenes play out as Zoom sessions interposed by footage of pandemic emptiness. The interplay between Tennant and Sheen is magical, often profane, and razor sharp. All in all, Staged is a Coronavirus boon, one to be spaced out and savored.
The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem [8/10]
Jonathan Lethem veers all over the literary genre landscape, always has, and he forever runs the risk of alienating his rapt fans. His previous novel, The Feral Detective left me rather nonplussed, so I hoped “The Arrest,” another switchback turn to the dystopia genre, would restore my faith. Fortunately it does, although the first few chapters are genuinely mystifying. The chapters themselves are short snippets, sometimes only a page long, and the book’s central character, Sandy Duplessis, is a scatty, mild mess, hardly a compelling narrative focus. But Lethem is a superb stylist (albeit in many different styles) and quickly one becomes absorbed in Sandy’s woozy worldview. The storyline is almost daft: after “the Arrest,” a global event that turns off nearly all technology, Sandy is comfortably numb in a rural Maine community that seems to be waiting for apocalypse, when his old movie producer buddy, an outre bullshit personality, arrives in a nuclear-powered digging machine. Throw in Sandy’s sister who once was ambiguously involved with the buddy, and the plot aches with foreboding but also crackles with Sandy’s life journey. Part dystopia, part satire, part examination of love and friendship, The Arrest is an odd fish novel that compels, a memorable peek into a man’s heart and soul. Heartily recommended.
Keep It Moving by Twyla Tharp [9/10]
A most unlikely minor miracle. Spy the cover of a sharp-eyed but older woman emblazoned with a title of “Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life” in a book shop, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing this as a lame How-To full of platitudes. Luckily, when I spotted this book, I was in the know, for I’d soaked up Twyla Tharp’s astringent, vital advice bible for writers and other creatives, The Creative Habit, back in 2006. Tharp is an iconic choreographer, so both her books come from the world of dance but her message in both books, which is that it’s all about hard work and discipline, transcend her world. Keep It Moving offers twelve robust chapters of advice from Tharp, pitched at my age and older (she is over 70), and each chapter includes a set of physical exercises (“Squirm,” “Jump for Joy,” “marking your day,” and so on) and each of these strikes me as valuable. The author evangelizes movement and attitude, cajoles, and preaches, all expressed in a vibrant, blunt, intelligent style. For someone like me in the target audience, Keep It Moving is one of the best exercise How-To books I’ve come across, and I heartily recommend it for all ages.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin [6/10]
A titan amongst modern sci-fi authors, N. K. Jemisin channels Lovecraft with “The City We Became,” the first book in a trilogy concerning a hideous, tentacled, savagely humorous creature out to destroy the Big Apple. Five New Yorkers find themselves as avatars of different boroughs of New York, and are thrust into chaotic discovery and battle, none of them clear on why they are chosen or what they are capable of. The author masterfully embraces the diverse set of heroes, each so different, each brimming with modern challenges drawn straight from this week’s headlines. The complex plot rockets along, sometimes perhaps lacking a fully laid out storyline, and the creature-versus-kinda-superhero battles pulse with virtuosity. I felt the middle section sagged under the weight of too much world-building baggage, but the ending was solid and promises a dramatic second book. Unusual and arresting.
Capernaum by Nadine Lebaki [9/10]
I missed highly regarded “Capernaum” when it came out a couple of years ago and only now have made amends. It’s harrowing and brilliant and a movie one must see, even if, as is the case with me, its forensic examination of Lebanese poverty and discrimination is not new knowledge. Twelve-year-old Zain runs away from his chaotic, brutal family and lands up with a babysitting job for an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, and when she is arrested, Zain faces the impossible mountain of caring for toddler Yonas. No plot giveaways here but anyone seeing this is already aware of the film’s core conceit, that Zain sues his parents from prison, sues them for bringing him into the world. The world in which Zain and the others exists is harsh, poor, and predatory, and writer/director Nadine Lebaki brilliantly choreographs a spare, horrific plot. Zain Al Rafeea (as Zain) and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole (as Yonas) are astonishingly realistic and powerful, but there is not a dud performance throughout. The cinematography brings cesspit Beirut to life. The climax does descend a note with a couple of maudlin touches, but overall Capernaum is a triumph.